Pope’s Final Farewell
VATICAN CITY (AFP) – Pope Benedict XVI held his last audience of his pontificate in St Peter’s Square on Wednesday on the eve of his historic resignation as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
Tens of thousands of pilgrims came to the Vatican to bid a final farewell to an 85-year-old pope who abruptly cut short his pontificate by declaring he was too weak in body and mind to keep up with the modern world.
The Vatican says 50,000 people have obtained tickets for the event but many more may come and city authorities are preparing for 200,000, installing metal detectors in the area, deploying snipers and setting up field clinics.
No parking has been allowed in the zone since 10:00 p.m. Tuesday, and cars were to be barred entirely from 7:00 a.m. on Wednesday.
The weekly audience, which is exceptionally being held in St Peter’s Square because of the numbers expected, is to begin at around 10:30 a.m. (0930 GMT) and usually lasts around an hour with a mixture of prayers and religious instruction from the pope.
Benedict will be the first pope to step down since the Middle Ages – a break with Catholic tradition that has worried conservatives but kindled the hopes of Catholics around the world who want a breath of new life in the Church.
Rome has been gripped by speculation over what prompted Benedict to resign and who the leading candidates might be to replace him.
Rumors and counter-rumors in the Italian media suggest cut-throat behind-the-scenes lobbying, prompting the Vatican to condemn what it has called “unacceptable pressure” to influence the papal election.
Campaign groups have also lobbied the Vatican to exclude two cardinals accused of covering up child sex abuse from the upcoming election conclave.
‘Roman Pontiff Emeritus’
The Vatican has said Benedict will receive the title of “Roman pontiff emeritus” and can still be addressed as “Your Holiness” and wear the white papal cassock after he officially steps down at 1900 GMT on Thursday.
Just before that time, the Vatican said Benedict will be whisked off by helicopter to the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo near Rome where he will begin a life out of the public eye.
Benedict will wave from the residence’s balcony one last time before retreating to a private chapel and, as he has said, a life “hidden from the world.”
On the hour he formally loses his powers as sovereign pontiff, the liveried Swiss Guard that traditionally protects popes will leave the residence.
The shock of the resignation and its unprecedented nature in the Church’s modern history has left the Vatican sometimes struggling to explain the implications and Benedict’s future status – from the banal to the theological.
Some Catholics find it hard to come to terms with the idea that someone who was elected in a supposedly divinely inspired vote could simply resign.
The Vatican has said Benedict will lose his power of divine infallibility – a sort of supreme authority in doctrinal matters – as soon as he steps down.
The Vatican has also explained that the personalized gold Fisherman’s Ring traditionally used to seal papal documents – a key symbol of the office – will be destroyed by a special cardinal, as is customary in Catholic tradition.
Benedict has also chosen to swap his trademark red shoes for a brown pair given to him by artisans in Mexico during a trip last year.
Starting next week, cardinals from around the world will begin a series of meetings to decide what the priorities for the Catholic Church should be, set a start date for the conclave and consider possible candidates for pope.
The conclave – a centuries-old tradition with an elaborate ritual – is supposed to be held within 15 to 20 days of the death of the pope, but Benedict has given special dispensation for the cardinals to bring that date forward.
Cardinals have been flying in from around the world including US prelate Roger Mahony, a former archbishop of Los Angeles stripped of all church duties for mishandling and covering up sex abuse claims against dozens of priests.
A total of 115 “cardinal electors” are scheduled to take part after another voter, British cardinal Keith O’Brien said he would not be taking part after allegations emerged that he made unwanted advances towards priests in the 1980s.
Pope Benedict XVI will be remembered as a traditionalist who gave up on a papacy overshadowed by infighting within the Roman Catholic Church and a toxic sex abuse scandal.
The 85-year-old German pontiff, who said his age prevented him from carrying on in a fast-changing world, is a soft-spoken intellectual who has appeared overwhelmed by turmoil within the Vatican.
Benedict succeeded the long-reigning and popular John Paul II in April 2005 aged 78 after serving for nearly a quarter-century as the Church’s chief doctrinal enforcer, earning himself the nickname “God’s Rottweiler.”
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s conservative outlook, his nationality and age were all seen as handicaps from the start of his papacy.
“I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry,” he said in his shock announcement to Vatican prelates in Latin on February 11.
Benedict, the first pope to resign since the Middle Ages, focused his energy on issues dear to his heart, such as the foundations of Christianity and inter-faith relations.
During a trip to the Holy Land in 2009 he called for a two-state solution, and he used a 2012 visit to Lebanon to urge Middle Eastern Christians and Muslims to forge a harmonious, pluralistic society.
The pope also fought to stem growing secularism in the West, and repeatedly stressed family values, fiercely opposing abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage.
In a bid to reach young people he set up a Twitter account in nine languages and called for the Church to be an active presence on social media.
The pope was also an advocate of environmental causes, setting up renewable energy and organic farming at Vatican properties.
He rejected the ordination of women and marriage for priests – a sensitive issue which came repeatedly to the fore as the priestly sex abuse crisis intensified.